In an attempt to stave off a major federal overhaul of the $2.5 trillion health-care industry, health-insurance companies agreed yesterday to stop insuring women at higher premium rates than they do men.

Karen Ignagni, president of the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, testified before the Senate Finance Committee that she doesn't think gender should factor into rates for individual policies. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) likewise introduced a bill that would prevent insurance companies from considering sex in setting policy premiums.

"The disparity between women and men in the individual insurance market is just plain wrong, and it has to change," said Sen. Kerry. His proposed bill also bars insurers from denying or limiting coverage based on a woman's "pregnancy status or delivery method." "With Mother's Day around the corner," he said, "there's no better gift to American women than discrimination-free, affordable and accessible insurance that meets their health needs."

Two-thirds of women in the U.S. ages 18 to 64 are medically insured through their employers, and so are already protected by federal and state laws that bar employer plans from setting premium rates based on gender, race, or poor health. It's the 5.7 million women, often self-employed, who buy insurance in the individual market that are most vulnerable for being charged at rates higher than men for similar policies.

According to an April story from NPR's Sarah Varney, a major reason for the disparity between men's and women's insurance rates is that women old and young alike are more likely than men to make regular doctors' visits. Another, more obvious factor is the incredible cost of childbirth, which the American Pregnancy Association currently puts between $6,000 and $8,000. (It goes up for high-risk pregnancies.) More sobering, the APA estimates that 13 percent of women who become pregnant each year are part of the 41 million Americans who are uninsured.

Perhaps unfairly, the high cost of childbirth affects young and middle-aged women who do not end up having children. Varney reports that in California, for example, even when maternity costs are factored out, women pay nearly 40 percent more than men for comparable individual policies.

What do you think? Is it discrimination by default for insurance companies to charge women at higher rates than they do men? Or do you think it only makes sense from a business standpoint for insurance companies to factor in the chance of pregnancy?